The relationship between religion and suicide was first established in Emile Durkheim’s 19th-century seminal treatise. This has since been corroborated in different countries,most recently by Swiss researchers who used a year 2000 census-based cohort study to show that such risk patterns still persisted, with risk highest for those with no religious affiliation, lowest for Roman Catholics and intermediate for Protestants. Why religion should exhibit this protective effect is less clear: Durkheim attributed it to the sense of community that arises from active church membership, with attendance the most commonly cited attribute. Others, however, emphasise the moral and religious objections to suicide,although Durkheim was at pains to rule this out as an explanation. Perhaps a more pertinent question is why, given increasing societal secularisation, does the relationship between religion and suicide still seem to persist? Increasing secularization is also evident in Switzerland, where by the end of the 1990s nonpractising Christians made up almost half the population, and a further 11% cited no religious affiliation. This has led many social researchers, including some in Switzerland, to conclude that affiliation bears little correspondence to religious belief or practice but is more likely to reflect a diverse set of traditions or social convenience.
So begins a new paper from the British Journal of Psychiatry looking at what seems to be a very old and established relationship: religion and suicide. This is heavily treed ground, as the above quotation suggests, with work going back to Durkheim’s 1897 book.
I remember medical school and residency conversations on this topic of religion and suicide, referencing Durkheim. Though people debated the reasons, this much seemed to be taken for granted: religion bestows a protective quality on its followers. For Durkheim, the thinking was that church attendance – highest among the Catholics – provided the advantage.
In “Religion and the risk of suicide: longitudinal study of over 1 million people,” Dermot O’Reilly and Michael Rosato focus on Northern Ireland, drawing on census data.
It’s a short, clever study. It also raises a simple question: is Durkheim’s thinking dated?